Tokyo is up against the clock when it comes to creating a city that’s accessible for everyone. Its deadline? Next year’s Olympic Games, though that really shouldn’t matter when it comes to transforming Japan into a nation where anyone can use any space.
Accessibility means different things to different people, and sometimes people get left behind. As someone who uses a wheelchair, I learned this the hard way when I moved to Japan.
Before I arrived, I went online to look for apartments. Out of the 240,000 apartments that were available in Tokyo, 900 were listed as barrier-free. Each had amenities that made them accessible to someone, but none had the right combination to make them accessible to me. The reasons varied: a raised entryway; a narrow bathroom door; a long commute; and so forth. I ended up staying at a hotel but even then, I encountered difficulties. Only 0.4 percent of Japan’s hotel rooms are accessible, and the options I had were limited. I paid twice the average rate for a room that I could hardly use.
Getting around Tokyo has also been a problem for me. I’ve had to rely on outdated maps and have often run into obstacles like shut-down elevators. When I’ve asked station attendants for support, they’ve rarely been able to help as my Swedish-made wheelchair defies all standards of accommodation in Japan. I can’t tell you the amount of times that I’ve had someone offer to carry my 250-kilogram powerchair up a flight of stairs. Good intentions, but catastrophic results.
These problems are not unique to Japan: Every country has facilities and services that are accessible to some people and not others. While I was able to live and work in the United States, a person with a disability from Japan might not be able to do the same. Indeed, I’m not alone in dealing with these problems. Nearly 9.5 million people in Japan have some kind of disability. Worldwide, that number exceeds 1 billion. And such statistics do not account for elderly people, parents with strollers and others who require accommodating.
Access-makers in Japan — architects, educators, lawmakers and others who are involved in supporting those with disabilities — are not starting from scratch. They rely on laws and policies such as the Barrier Free Transportation Law of 2000, the New Barrier Free Law of 2006 and the Law for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities of 2016, which promote the development of universal design: a philosophy and practice of building that aims to create environments that can be easily used by everyone. Access-makers have tried to implement universal design in Japan by creating new accommodations. To ensure that their products are useful, they’ve gone out of their way to consult each other and people with disabilities.
Unfortunately, this kind of communication is now at stake as Japan rushes toward the Olympics. Overzealous implementation has stolen away our chance to have meaningful conversations about desirable kinds of accessibility. Access-makers have lost opportunities to ask who they’re building for, why they’re building for them, and how their actions will affect current and future generations of persons with disabilities. As a result, those people are now at risk.
Consider reports about blind people falling to their deaths at train stations due to improperly installed tactile pavement, or wheelchair users stalling in the streets and being hit by cars. Also think about stigma-motivated attacks as part of the preparations for the games. When a person with a disability cannot use accommodation designed to support them, additional pressure is placed on those who assist them. Caregivers have to work extra hard to help their clients thrive in inhospitable environments. They can become exhausted, and their relationship with their clients can become strained, leading to incidents such as the Sagamihara massacre of 2016.
If violence toward people with disabilities is borne out of haste, we have two options to resolve it. We can either slow down our efforts to create access or speed up our communications channels to ensure that no one is left behind. Given the immediacy of the Olympics, slowing down doesn’t seem like a real possibility. Indeed, Japan has many other reasons to rush toward access, not the least of which is its declining birthrate, aging population and shrinking workforce.
So how can Japan speed up its communications channels and create sustainable dialogues between people with disabilities and access-makers? I believe crowdsourcing technologies are a method worth exploring.
Crowdsourcing technologies allow users to identify barriers to access in real time and share their experiences with experts to collectively brainstorm solutions. They can also be used to evaluate products and services before, during, and after implementation, allowing users to identify who a given product or service affords access to and how it can be more inclusive.
The 2020 Olympic Games are an opportunity to develop and deploy crowdsourcing technologies. Imagine what we could learn about accessibility if even a small fraction of the guests coming to Japan used crowdsourcing technologies to illustrate their experiences of access. How might we use that data to transform accessibility at local, national, international and transnational levels? Maybe in a few years, people with disabilities who are new to the country, like I once was, won’t have to look at thousands of apartments to find one that works in Japan. And maybe Japanese people with disabilities will be able to travel overseas with relative ease.
Access means different things to different people, and some people may get left behind. By using crowdsourcing technologies, we can work to ensure that no one is left behind again.
Mark Bookman is a visiting researcher at the University of Tokyo Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology with a background in accessibility issues in Japan.